How Rapture Fever Harms the Church

John ArmstrongCurrent Affairs, Eschatology, The Church

I grew up on the idea that Christ’s coming again at the end of this age was in two parts. First, he came to take the church away (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Second, he came seven years later, after The Great Tribulation, to judge and condemn those who were unbelievers. Any who had believed during The Great Tribulation period were also rescued in this second, Second Coming.

Rapture Until I was 20 years old I believed this so ardently that it deeply impacted how I lived. It also impacted many of those around me. I led a gospel team in college and several members of my team dropped out of college because they really believed that Christ was coming very soon to “rapture” the church. (The term rapture comes from a translation of the word in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 where Paul says those who remain will be “caught up” to meet Christ in the air!) I can still remember hearing the famous Hal Lindsey speak on the coming “Great Snatch” when I was a freshman at the University of Alabama. I went out and bought several major books on prophecy and began to study and prepare for the Rapture. I even planned my future based on the idea that Lindsey taught that my generation would see Christ come again.

It wasn’t until I got to Wheaton College in 1970 that I began to doubt all of this. I did a paper on the subject and read George E. Ladd’s book, The Blessed Hope: A Biblical Study of the Second Advent and the Rapture. Blessed Hope I was so initially upset by this book that I wanted to throw it in the trash! It shook me up and unsettled a firmly held tenet in my system that I had held since childhood. (My mom ardently believed this and taught it to me even though none of my pastors ever taught it growing up in Southern Baptist churches.) Over the course of that semester I studied, read and thought a great deal about the biblical teaching on this subject. I even attended a home study group to get into it more deeply. By the end of that term my mind was changed. My mother was always disappointed and over time I learned not to bring this up to mom because of my respect and love for her.

Now, more than forty years later, it is quite tempting to mock people who hold this idea about Christ’s return but I must recall that some of the most godly people I’ve ever known believed it. This checks my inclination to make fun of people who believe this teaching.

Having said this I simply cannot abide this teaching in any way. It is just plain wrong. Sometimes it is so wrong that it does great harm in the hands of zealots. We’ve had more than our share of predictions about the end go wrong of late. But even this will not stop those filled with rapture fever from speculating about the days that we live in and the coming of Jesus. Americans are unusually prone to this teaching since they think things are getting worse and worse in “these last days” and they want to live well and then escape before it gets really, really bad.

Second Coming of Christ There are a number of problems with this teaching. For starters everyone should admit that if you hold this view you really do teach that there are “two second comings of Jesus.” He comes again and then again. In fact, when we sang the chorus “Jesus Is Coming Again” at Campus Crusade meetings at Alabama in 1967-69 some of us sang, “Jesus is coming again, and again . . .” Think about this. It is patently ludicrous to draw such a conclusion on the basis of any simple reading of the New Testament. You have to adopt a highly developed and terribly unbiblical system and then look for “two comings” to get two!

Another problem with this teaching is the way it stirs people up to do all kinds of silly things that are often truly harmful to godly Christian living. Rapture fever is dangerous and it harms some Christians. (Yes, there are some pre-tribulation teachers who avoid the wild nonsense but they are honestly quite rare.) I was listening to one of the hosts on the Moody Radio Network last week. She speaks routinely about the rapture as if she is quite sure it has to be near. She was talking about the economy, the president, etc. This teaching impacts everything she says and does. She connects the dots and always seems to get back to the Rapture being near. I can’t listen anymore. I have actually reprogrammed my radio selections so I do not accidentally hit that button. I will listen to two programs on the  Moody Network and go to these two when I am in the car but I will have no more accidental hits. They only irritate me so I best remove the source to drive safely.

An excellent article appeared in the Bloomberg Businessweek on July 28th about the financial profits that are being made by people who teach rapture doctrine. This article asks if the present economic crisis provides a context for the increase of this popular teaching? The answer is affirmed in the positive. Here is one statement that writer Peter Savodnik makes in his Bloomberg report:

This means there are only so many days left to get rich. Strandberg, the proprietor of—the most popular Rapture-preparedness website in the world—is part of a new generation of entrepreneurs trying to take advantage of Camping’s absence. Unlike Camping, the new apocalypse establishment is offering an unprecedented array of doomsday-themed literature, podcasts, survival kits, and other goods and services for navigating the end of times.

But the writer goes on to name others who have benefited in a number of ways including Jack Van Impe, Tim LaHaye, et al. Here is one of the most impressive insights that Savodnik provides:

Yet the dirty little secret about the Rapture trade is that it’s run by people who often hope there is no Rapture. The trick is to encourage belief in—and spending on—the Rapture for as long as possible. Camping’s most recent failed prophecy—his fifth—has reaffirmed many Rapture-based entrepreneurs’ conviction that staying vague is the best plan. Terry James, who co-runs with Strandberg, recently published his 22nd book on the end of the world. “We don’t set dates,” he says. “That’s one thing that Jesus said. No one knows the hour except the Father.” Left Behind author LaHaye urges his readers to log on to his site to “take your time, browse around, but by all means, get prepared for the coming of the Lord”—whenever that happens.

Next time someone starts talking about the Rapture being soon tell them that you also believe Jesus is coming back – once and for all, not twice. Anyone who reads the New Testament without a special reference Bible or surrounded by a bunch of ill-taught teachers who want to sell them a system that is deeply flawed and totally discredited can plainly see the incredible errors in this idea if they stop buying the emotional appeals.

There is one thing I am certain about here – no one knows the day or the hour of the return of Jesus. Why? He said so.